By Russell Stiger Jr. | Special to The OBSERVER
Sacramento Republic FC fans have been taken on a thrilling ride as their underdog soccer club has slashed, blocked, kicked and headed its way all the way through to the final of the U.S. Open Cup tournament.
The gritty Republic travels to Florida to face Major League Soccer (MLS) club Orlando City SC at 5 p.m. Sept. 7 on ESPN+. A victory would make Republic FC the first team not from MLS to win the tournament since the Rochester Raging Rhinos in 1999.
After upsetting highly regarded MLS teams from San Jose and Los Angeles, the Indomitable, as the Republic is known to its fans, scored its biggest upset July 27, beating Sporting KC 5-4 on penalty kicks. Republic again won on the road Aug. 3, beating New Mexico United 2-1, as Rodrigo “Roro” Lopez set up Keko Gontan and Douglas Martinez Jr. for scores in the 57th and 61st minute, respectively, in the comeback win.
Fútbol – or soccer as it’s called in the United States – is a different type of game than mainstream American sports, football, basketball, baseball, and hockey or racing. It’s similar to hockey in the scores, with a touch of college and NFL football fandemonium and the tension of a back-and-forth NBA game.
“You know, I thought the boys gave everything. The boys played their hearts out,” Coach Mark Briggs said. “And ultimately, we rode our luck at times, which you’re going to when you’re facing an MLS team – you have to ride your luck.”
The Republic’s Heart Health Stadium sits west of the Cal Expo Fairgrounds, and with the fair in full swing, a natural crowd already surrounded the stadium, which already was packed. The Republic FC currently sits fifth (9-6-5) in the USL Championship Western Conference (United States Second Division) while Sporting KC is 14th (5-5-14) in the MLS (United States Top Division).
How did a second-division soccer club find itself matched against a top-division club with a chance to play for a championship?
“The guys understand our plan and how to execute,” Briggs said. “But for me, it’s the mentality of this group, the togetherness of this group, the culture within the locker room. That’s what gets us through difficult moments.”
When the teams were drawn for the U.S. Open Cup semifinals, Sacramento – the only USL team of the four – received a home game. Sacramento always has had great home environments, and the fans stayed engaged for all 120 minutes of the 0-0 game and the penalty shootout.
When taking a penalty kick, it’s just the attacker and the goalie, and while most players aim for a spot and power it in, Sac Republic forward Maalique Foster, who hails from Jamaica, used the chance to give the crowd something to remember. Foster chipped the ball into the top corner.
“I was looking at the ground and all I could hear was the emotion of the stadium and the fans, and I just heard a big gasp,” Briggs said. “I thought he’d missed. But then the crowd erupted when it finally hit the net. So I still haven’t seen it.
“But that’s Maalique. You need characters in teams and Maalique’s a character. To do what he did in that moment shows the quality and confidence he has in his own ability. The celebrations at the end – that’s what we play football for.”
Foster is no stranger to coming off the bench to make an impact, much like he did in Week 16, scoring and assisting after he took the field in the 65th minute.
“Those are the moments that you treasure for the rest of your life and take in,” Briggs said. “We were fortunate to have a sellout crowd and to celebrate with a sellout crowd and all our amazing fans. It’s just something you take to the grave.”
The penalty shootout went back and forth until Republic goalkeeper Danny Vitello, who finished with eight saves, stopped a shot early, then another to put Republic ahead after Captain Rodrigo “RoRo” Lopez banged in the winner.
Luther Archimede was clinical in his penalty attempt and showed some last-minute energy as time expired.
“Taking a PK in front of everyone was a little bit stressful because it was the biggest game of the year,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s soccer. We’ve played this sport all our lives. So it’s just about enjoying it now.
“I just wanted to score for the city … score for the team. It was really stressful, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do and you have to trust yourself. And tonight was important too. We still had to do the job.”
“Luther worked his socks off,” Briggs said. “He never gave their defenders any seconds on the ball and finished this goal exceptionally well.”
Archimede is a big physical presence on the field and in the following game, a 4-2 win on the road against Charleston, he had a goal and an assist.
“Wednesday was the biggest game of the year,” he said. “Even though some guys were tired after that, we just had to show tonight what we are about and show the league that we are ready for league play. We are a team that fights hard and we want to go as far as possible, everywhere.”